This Simple 2-Ingredient Sauté Mimics the Taste of Wild Ramps—the Trendy Vegetable with Roots in Appalachia
In this installment of our series on foods of the African diaspora, Jessica B. Harris offers a culinary cheat that will ramp up the flavor of any meal—without the search for (or expense of) springtime's elusive wild vegetable.
Ramps are the elusive fairy folk of the springtime vegetable world. They are much discussed and lauded, but often unobtainable. When they can be found, they are expensive enough to elicit a sharp intake of breath and a clutch of the wallet when seen at the farmers' markets and are much prized by chefs. In fact, their popularity has at times lead to overharvesting, which can damage the ecosystems they grow in. They have been known to add their distinctive zing to everything from omelets to sauces to pickles. Virtually all parts of the ramp can be eaten, from their leaves to their bulbs, and depending on when they are in their all-too- brief season, they may offer a mildly aromatic tang or all of the pungency of wild garlic, which is what they are called in England.
Ramps, though, like many of today's superstar vegetables, have a long history that belies their present exoticism. The name wild garlic speaks to the other side of their story. Members of the allium family, they are native to eastern Canada and the eastern United States and are considered a harbinger of spring. Before they became the superstar spring vegetable, they were poor folks' food: a delicacy that was foraged when the dual-leafed shoots began to push through the ground heralding the arrival of spring. In much of the African American South and especially in Appalachia, where the food of poor Black and white people mixed and mingled, they were usually sautéed in bacon fat and were a foundational part of a traditional spring "tonic" meal consumed to build folks up after the winter. The bacon-infused mess of ramp greens was a meal in itself, perhaps with the addition of a slice of cornbread, and the ramps offered vitamins and minerals for those who had spent much of the winter without many green vegetables in their diets.
Now, I love ramps as much as the next person and when I can find them, I delight in their cleansing piquancy. This year, the word is that they are early to market and abundant. However, sometimes they are just not available and, frankly, sometimes I balk at their expense. Then I turn to my quick cheat, which is to sauté up a batch of charred scallions and coarsely chopped garlic to create a delicious mock ramps mixture that's also economical and sustainable. I fold them into omelets, grind them up and make compound butters, add them to sautéed mushrooms and top off a steak or a piece of grilled fish and then blissfully indulge in my love for the stinking bulbs in all of their forms with neither the expense nor the search.
Try the recipe for Sautéed Scallions & Garlic (Mock Wild Ramps) pictured above.
This essay is the second installment of "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA). She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see the previous installment of this series on Jamaican escovitch fish, as well as Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.